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Interview with AthleticsNation author and former KALX Sports Director Nico Part II

Part I

Today, we have part 2 of our 3 part interview with Nico.  Nico, from 1985-1990, was the lead broadcaster and sports director for Cal baseball and women's basketball with Cal student radio station, KALX.  From 1987-1991, he broadcast Oakland A's spring training games.  From 1991-1994, he was the Director of Broadcasting (working alongside CGB Hit Squad member OhioBear) for the Oakland A's Single A affiliate, the Southern Oregon A's.  Since 1994, he has been focused on other pursuits, such as being one of the authors for initial SBN site, AthleticsNation.

Many thanks to Nico for his time and interest in this project.  Join me after the jump for this part of the interview, relating to his role as spring training broadcaster for the Oakland A's and also for the Southern Oregon A's.


TwistNHook:  Well, tell us a little about the spring training experience.

Nico:  That was the most exciting for me.  It was in 1987 I approached the As with just an idea.  I pointed out that they broadcast all the weekend games on the flagship station, which at the time was KSFO, and all the weekday games were not broadcast from the cactus league.  I was the KALX sports director and the lead announcer and I said to them, "What if I was to go down to spring training and broadcast 3 weekday games back to the bay area?"  It would be exclusive because KSFO was not broadcasting those games.  

I would pay for it.  Basically, if I would book my own flight and show up with my own equipment and I didn't cost the As a penny, how could that not be a good thing for them?  Their broadcast director at the time said sounds good to me.  They granted me the exclusive rights to 3 games, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.  What I did with that was I would go down to spring training, I did this for 5 consecutive seasons, 87-91.  First of all, down in spring training a lot of the players become available to come up to the booth mid-game if maybe they pitched two innings and then they shower and they have nothing else to do around the fifth or sixth inning.  Or maybe somebody who may be recovering from injury.  What I ended up doing was broadcasting the games from down and bringing on occasional guests for color commentary.

I had Terry Steinbach on.  I had Dave Stewart on.  I had Kevin Johnson on, who was playing for the Phoenix Suns at the time.  I knew him from Cal.  He came to a game, so I said you wanna come up for a few innings.  He said sure, so he came up for an interview.  I probably had 5 or 6 different players who came on each year.  Rick Honeycutt was another one.  Some of them were fantastic on air, too.  I would kinda balance the play by play with sort of an interview and analysis that we would weave in between pitches.  It was very successful, because even though KALX isn’t very strong, so it doesn’t have a wide range of where you can pick it up, in the area where people could get KALX, which is the East Bay and a little bit in the SF area, we were the only way you could hear the game.  Our ratings were through the roof.  This was major league baseball.  People wanna hear spring training games, if you can.

I got a ton of fan mail responses.  It was like a 15 minutes of fame that I really didn’t expect.  That wasn’t my purpose in doing it.  I wasn’t trying to establish myself as a broadcaster.  I thought it would be a great win-win for me as a broadcaster and for A's fans and I didn’t anticipate that it would become as big as it did.  But that is what happens when you are dealing with a major league team and exclusive broadcasts that people can’t get anywhere else

T:  Especially at a time when they were winning World Series and winning pennants.  They were truly the class of the league at that point.  Now, you were doing the spring training while you were a Cal student?  

N:  Ya, I had to take most of the week off for school.  I would fly down over the weekend.  One of my big thrillls was that I had Lon Simmons on, who was my idol growing up as a broadcaster.  They would be down broadcasting for the weekend and they were around for the week.  Tony LaRussa was the manager.  This was the team that was anchored by McGwire, Canseco, et al.  These were World Series teams that were drawing a couple million a year.  The As were actually a big deal at that time. The timing could not have been better for me.

T:  How difficult was it to be a Cal student and also handle all your responsibilities with school and all other aspects of the KALX sports area, while at the same time trying to juggle this spring training workload?

N:  The spring training was the least of it.  That was just 3 days out of the entire year.  Being the sports director of the entire radio station and the lead broadcaster for baseball and also women’s basketball and also traveling for away games that was certainly was the strain.  No more so than being an athlete.  It was really just the broadcast version of being an athlete.  What made it easier for me was I went into cal in the very beginning knowing I was committed to taking 5 years to graduate.  That was probably the smartest move i made.  I saw a lot of my friends, who were on the regular 4 year plan, who were really stressed. My course load was a little bit lighter and I had done that with the idea in mind that I really wanted to enjoy my college experience.  I was going to be heavily into broadcasting.  I was going to splitting my time as a student and as a broadcaster.  Because of that, it was manageable.  But ya, I was definitely very busy in college

T:  What did you major in, by the way?


N:  I ended up majoring in humanities, which is Cal’s version of liberal arts.  That was mostly because I didn’t like the mass communications major at Cal.  I wasn’t really impressed with it.  I knew what I  wanted my career to be, but I didn’t feel like I necessarily needed to focus my major around it.  The humanities major is the broadest and it allowed me to take courses from the most different departments.  That is what I wanted, I just wanted a well rounded education.

T:  So, on top of doing the spring training thing, you professionally broadcast for a minor league A's affiliate.  Is that accurate?

N:  Right, so in 1990 when I was graduating from Cal I went down to the baseball winter meetings.  There is also a gathering in El  Paso for minor league general managers, but also for broadcasters who go down there to try to land broadcasting jobs.  I cannot even remember now.  I ended up meeting the GM of the Southern Oregon As, which was in Medford, Oregon.  They hired me for year round to work for the team, selling advertising in the off-season and broadcasting the games during the season.  That was an intense schedule.  76 games in 80 days.  That was hard.  The lack of days off.  

Minor league baseball is middle of the night travel by bus.  It is not air travel.  We would maybe finish a 7 game homestand, get on a bus at midnight, land in Yakima, Wa at 9 AM, check in to our hotel, sleep a little, get up and go to the ballpark for a game that day.  Then, maybe come home 5 days later.  A lot of the homestands and road trips were 5 days.  Some were 7.  It was packed.  They play almost every single day.  I think one season we only had 2 off days.  Another we had 4.  It was exhausting.  I certainly learned to broadcast when I didn’t feel like I was at my most awake or sharpest.  It was also a great experience.  I did that for 4 years before I decided that that probably wasn’t the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

T:  What did you learn at the KALX experience that you thought helped you with either the spring training or the minor league affiliate time?

N:  My experience with Cal baseball was really my first on air experience in broadcasting.  I had done a ton of practice tapes on my own.  I was very serious about broadcasting at a young age.  By the age of 12, I was already out in the center field bleachers in the Coliseum with a tape recorder, mike, and my binder of notes.  Just doing 9 innings to get better and better at the craft.  By the time I got to Cal, I guess I was 18, I had been making demo tapes on my own for 6 years.  I had not been doing it on air.  Cal gave me that real time experience and comfort behind the mike and comfort with a headset and with the whole routine, working with a live board.  

That was invaluable.  There is no substitute for experience.  That is how you learn.

T:  So, when you were 12, which doing the basic math was in the late 70s, you started going to the Oakland A's Coliseum, which was not called the Network Associates or MacAfee Coliseum at that time, and you would just sit in the bleachers and record yourself talking?

N:  Record myself doing what I would later be doing on the air.  Actually doing 9 innings of play by play.  Doing the whole routine as if I was transmitting through radio. What tended to happen, which I ended up taking my pride and motivation in, was the people around me.  I always tried to find the isolated spot with the best view possible.  There would always be quite a few people in hearing range of me, being a kid with a tape recorder and a microphone acting like he was doing play by play on a radio somewhere.  The first inning they would kinda look at me like who is this guy, what is he doing? What is going on?  Just kinda quizzical looks.

Around the second inning, they would start essentially making fun of me, imitating what I was doing, laughing.  Right around the 3rd inning or so, they would shut up and start listening, because they were all "wait a minute we’re getting a free radio broadcast here."  That was always my motivator.  They are gonna look at me like I’m crazy.  Then, they are gonna try to make fun of me, but then at some point they are gonna turn on my station and just start listening to me.  I just tried to block them out and just tried to do my thing.

T:  That is impressive.  I guess there is just something in you growing up saying, "I want to be a broadcaster, this is what I love, I need to start doing this."

N:  I don’t honestly remember why or the moment that I decided this is what I want to do with my life, but it was young.  I remember that when I used to listen to Lon Simmons and Bill King, I identified with them.  I would do the play by play in my head.  To this day, I have been out of broadcasting for 16 years now.  1994 was my last year.  To this day, I automatically do the play by play for every game I watch in my head unless I remind myself to stop.  I have to make an effort.  I have to remember.   "I don’t have to do this.  I don’t want to do this.  I can just listen to Ken Korach.  I don’t have to do the play by play in my own mind as I would do it."  It is so ingrained in me.

T:  Quickly, before we move on to the basketball, were there any professional players that you saw go through the As affiliate when you were there that the readers would know?

N:  Sure.  As far as I traveled with and knew that were on the A’s, Jason Giambi was on the 1992 team.  Scott Spiezio was on the 1993 team.  Interesting note about Giambi was he came up as a 3B and was a very good 3B.  He was tall and very skinny.  He could move.  This was obviously pre-steroids.

The best hitter that I ever saw, even a little bit better than Giambi or Spiezio, was Ben Grieve.  I have to tell you he was really impressive.  He was one I certainly predicted would go on to be a great hitter for a long time.  He was actually a very good hitter for a short stretch.  He certainly did not have a kind of career that was predicted of him.  A lot of people felt he did not have the internal drive or motivation.  He had a very soft spoken personality.  Never showed a lot of fire or emotion.  It is quite a compliment to him that he is actually #1 most talented hitter that i saw and I saw Giambi and Spiezio on that team.  In 4 years of broadcasting in a league of 8 teams, I certainly saw plenty of great  players comet through.  Both on the A's and on opposing teams.  Brent Gates was on the 1991 team.  I don’t know where he ranks in terms of recognizability.  A lot of flame outs.  From single A ball to the major leagues is a long way.  Some of the #1 draft picks were Don Wengert, who went on to have a fairly long career as a terrible pitcher.  It is such a crapshoot.